Any player/Any era: Billy Martin

What he did: I’ll preface this by saying today’s piece isn’t about Billy Martin the player. Had he not played the majority of his career on the New York Yankees of the 1950s or been Mickey Mantle’s running partner those glory years, I doubt Martin would be much remembered for anything he did prior to becoming a manager. But his 16 years as a skipper more than made up for it, and Martin might be the best manager not in the Hall of Fame. He’s also one who could have done more, had he not died at 61 in a drunk driving accident on Christmas Day 1989.

Era he might have thrived in: Today’s piece isn’t about transplanting Martin to a different era. It’s about considering what he might have done if instead of dying at the end of the ’80s, one of baseball’s most notorious drinkers had gone to rehab or found another way to quit drinking. Sober, Martin might have done good things in baseball in the 1990s and beyond. With 80-year-old Jack McKeon just agreeing to manage the Florida Marlins, there’s a chance even that Martin would still be in the majors today at 83.

Why: Martin was good, underrated even. He was feisty, known for disputing calls on obscure technicalities, and notorious for getting fired by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner five times. Bottom line, Martin won wherever he went. In 16 years as a manager with five teams, he had just three losing seasons, going 2,267-1,253 overall with a World Series title and two pennants. And he did all this barely working past his 60th birthday.

Baseball’s an interesting sport in that good managers sometimes retire relatively early. Earl Weaver was 56 when he quit the Baltimore Orioles for good. Dick Williams managed the Oakland A’s to consecutive World Series championships in the early 1970s, got the San Diego Padres a pennant a decade later, and was out of baseball at 59. Joe McCarthy, who never had a losing season, quit managing at 63 and lived another 28 years. So perhaps Martin wasn’t long for the game, regardless of his fate in life.

But plenty of managers have lasted in baseball into their senior years, from Connie Mack to Casey Stengel to Felipe Alou. Sober, Martin would have been an interesting addition to their ranks, perhaps more sedate, less defiant, more secure. Imagine Martin sitting calmly in a dugout, less likely to brawl with one of his players or a marshmallow salesman after hours. It boggles the mind. Martin probably would have stood a better chance of sticking longer with one team, less likely to burn bridges and self-destruct.

What teams might Martin have benefited? My guess is that any number of clubs might have welcomed him. Here’s one that would have been interesting: the Moneyball A’s. Granted, Martin would have been pushing 70 by the time Billy Beane ushered in Oakland’s strategy of searching for any new competitive advantage as a small market club. But I’d like to think a scrappy man who spent a lifetime fighting would have been ideal to lead those A’s. And Martin had a couple winning seasons in Oakland in the early ’80s with Rickey Henderson and, essentially, some spare parts.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, and while I doubt that statement holds true for everyone, it’s apt for Martin. It’s a shame he didn’t live longer or conquer his demons. With his wealth of baseball knowledge and experience, he could have had an interesting final chapter as something of a sage. It goes without saying he’d also probably have his spot in Cooperstown today.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

4 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Billy Martin”

  1. Minor correction: Martin did not go 2267 and 1253 as a manager. That would have been a phenomenal .644 winning percentage. His record was 1253 wins out of 2267 games managed (.553 winning percentage).
    In my opinion, Martin’s best managerial performance was not with the Yankees, but with the Rangers. In his one full season managing in Texas (1974), the team finished eight games over .500 after having had more than 100 losses in both ’72 and ’73. In contrast, his teams in New York were much more talented and probably would have succeeded under any competent manager (as they did in ’78 under Bob Lemon following Martin’s dismissal).
    What I find most disturbing about Martin’s managerial record is that in his three-year stay in Oakland, his starting rotation was called upon to pitch more than 79% of the team’s innings, while the rest of the AL averaged less than 70%. This use of the team’s pitching staff was of course driven by the talent on the roster – five good starters (Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty, and Brian Kingman) and no stars in the bullpen (Jeff Jones was probably his best reliever). Of the starters, all but Langford wound up having relatively short careers. I can’t help but think that the careers of those young pitchers might have been very different if they had had the good fortune of landing with a more pitcher-friendly manager and pitching coach tandem (a pair like Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, or Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone) rather than Martin and his sidekick Art Fowler.

  2. Billy Martin was more than a last class drunk, he was a jerk!!!

    I met him in 1948 when I was 8 years old in Berkeley, CA.

    I tried to get his autograph when he came into a bar and grill my mother and I were eating at and he brushed me aside. My mother came and got me and explained that I shouldn’t worry, he was just drunk.

    He had an amazing career at every level. Think what it might have been had he not had a booze problem. He was playing for the Oakland Oaks and I remember that evening to this day 64 years later.

  3. Now, who would go out drinking on Christmas and leave his hottie wife at home while he and some ‘neck drank and tipped over a 4-wheel drive?

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